Because I’ve been a fan from the start, I know all the characters and all the plot twists and turns. I love how the characters grow and mature and then go off in another direction and surprise you. They are a particularly rich ensemble of actors, matched by the house they live in, a character in its own right.
Downton Abbey is almost grand opera in the way it portrays life’s dramas on multiple levels simultaneously. It’s also soap opera in the way it rivals As the World Turns in the number of relationship crises it squeezes into any given block of time. And it’s also epic Hollywood in the grandeur of the settings and the spare-no-expense costumes, cars, feathers, furniture and Marcel waves.
The juxtapositions work marvelously, the upstairs vs. the downstairs, the chauffeur who becomes family, and the Irish republican (same character) sitting down to dinner with English imperialists, the saintly innocents and the decadent manipulators. The privileged upper class twit one moment and the hearty Brit that muddles through the next. The internal shifts can make your head spin.
The main plot line in last night’s two-hour premiere was whether Lord Grantham, his mother and his daughter Mary are going to get Shirley MacLain to hand over the big bucks they need to keep Downton afloat when a financial crisis hits the family. It’s two years since the war killed off most of the young men and now this new existential crisis looms. In the process, Matthew, who has already morphed from country cousin to paterfamilias-in-training in previous episodes, and from near-dead soldier with a spinal injury to “I can walk!” miracle child, now steps in and out of sainthood as he wrestles with the choice between love and honor. When he averts that crisis, he then threatens to reduce the Crawleys to what they (but few others) might consider poverty. This time, your head actually does spin.
And all the while you can’t wait for Maggie Smith’s next entrance because you know you’re in for another of her world-class put-downs. Sometimes, it’s as if the entire series was written just for those lines. Until now my favorite lines by Lady Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, have been her exchanges with Isobel Crawley, who, as Matthew’s mother, is rightfully her peer, and thus a possible threat to her status.
Lady Grantham: "You are quite wonderful the way you see room for improvement wherever you look. I never knew such reforming zeal."
Mrs. Crawley: "I take that as a compliment."
Lady Grantham: "I must've said it wrong."
In the Season Three premiere the new foil is the Shirley MacLain character, Martha Levinson, about whom Lady Grantham says (I cannot find the exact quote, so I paraphrase):
Lady Grantham: Every time I see that woman, I appreciate the value of being English.
Granddaughter: But grandmama, Martha is American.
Lady Grantham: Precisely.
One of the the winning features of Downton Abbey is the ability creator Julian Fellowes has to write complexity into his characters. At least one critic finds this a weakness, sees it as subordinating honest and consistent character portrayal for the sake of plot development, but I prefer to see it as human richness of character. O’Brien goes from Lady Macbeth of the servants’ quarters to honest lady’s maid and loving auntie. Lady Grantham can tell her son she mistook him for a waiter when he comes in black-tie tuxedo to a white-tie dinner. But she can also persuade Daisy, the lowly kitchen maid wracked with guilt over marrying a man she didn’t love, that her guilt is misplaced, and that her act marks her as a woman of character. In that one instant, she rises to the same level as Isobel Crawley who makes her way in the world saving fallen women. It fits my preconception that we all carry within us the capacity to reduce others to quivering jelly as well as the capacity to help others to the finish line first.
And at the other extreme, we get a shot of the hitherto saintly Mr. Bates in a prison setting clearly suggesting the possibility that he murdered his wife after all. Leaving open, of course, the truth of the matter for plot twists in future episodes.
If you’re looking to find fault, you don’t have to go far. I think Martha, the Shirley MacLain character, didn’t quite work, and I’m still trying to decide whether it was the hamfisted way she played the part, or the way she was portrayed as a kind of American boor – which many will want to claim is a redundancy. I think, in the end, this is probably what rich Americans actually looked like to English gentry of the early 20th Century, so I don’t fault the writers for that. And in the end, Martha’s talents include the ability to save the day when the dinner can’t take place because the oven fails and she gets the ladies in ermine to see the charm of an indoor picnic. And she becomes the voice of reason in drawing the line at bailing out the dying institution of upper-class privilege, whose time has come.
If you want to, you can ask all sorts of questions about where the money came from in the first place. How much misery still extant in the world today is directly attributable to the colonial era and the twin engines of capitalism and militarism that made it all possible remains a taboo subject, communism still being pretty much defined as pure evil according by the current ideology, despite its origins in original Christianity, and before it was corrupted by money.
But we don’t want to go there. We don't want our critical faculties exercised. We want for an hour once a week to put them on hold. We want the fantasy of the house with the chandeliers and the servants below at one’s beck and call. What, we ask ourselves, would life be without such fantasies. We know it’s fiction, but they’ve gone and given Mrs. Hughes cancer and I’ve heard that a major character dies this season and I’m afraid it’s Mrs. Hughes and I already hate them for it because she feels like a close friend. I know her personal history and of all the people at Downton, she’s the one I want to be related to.
And I’m wondering if this cancer of hers is not a red herring, and she’s going to live and somebody else is going to die and how am I going to resist paying to get the entire season in advance and find out? And how am I, at the same time, going to make it last?
Isn’t that the definition of good theater? When it makes the audience lose the awareness of the lines between real and make-believe?
I have provided nothing, I suppose, to those who saw the premiere, that they haven’t come up with themselves, and I’ve said far too much for those who might yet want to see it. But I wanted to join the discussion. Much of it is enlightening and informative. And that strikes me as a good indication of the audience taken in by this marvelous entertainment. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain who wants to remind you why you should not shed a tear at the passing of a world of inherited wealth. Enjoy the spectacle. Tear up at the weddings. Let your spirits lift with every popping cork.
The Season has just begun.